Brushing her teeth before bed, Ruby Arenas stared at the smooth, soft contours of her face in the bathroom mirror. She also reflected on the cool Black man at the bar who looked like a 70s Blaxploitation movie star and called her “sister.”
She never thought of herself as Black because she wasn’t Black, her light skin tone reflecting the revolutionary blend between her caramel-colored Cuban father and her almost white Mexican mother.
“Black is beautiful,” Ruby said out loud as if the words had come to her from another world.
Race is a conundrum.
Identity is mysterious.
Women of color, and she now realized she was one, needed to stick together.
Ruby pondered her body and mind.
“Who am I? What am I?”
The epiphany that she lived as a multiracial woman made her eyes well up as she rubbed mango-based moisturizing cream into her cheeks. When she finally fell asleep her first dream re-enacted her birth. The second dream portrayed her death. A rainbow of visions, images of life and death spun in her unconscious mind.
Bolting upright in bed Ruby struggled to catch her breath. Fear gripped her mind. Uncertainty controlled her decision making. Chest pain terrified her that she might really be dying. Wide awake now she listened to stillness through the open bedroom window. A truck engine hummed past her studio apartment. A ceiling fan whirred above her head. Stepping softly from her bed, she walked carefully through shadows to the tiny living room. Ruby listened to black metal wind chimes vibrate.
She walked four blocks to the beach, kicked off her pink flip flops and stepped out of a long-T-shirt imprinted with patterns of conch shells to reveal a simple black two-piece swim suit. Gulls greeted her with soft cries. She thought of a raw piece of her savage dream that attacked her peace of mind as she moved slowly into deeper colder water, asking herself questions about her spirit.
Ruby dreamed about piranhas, how they attack, kill and eat meat in their hunger for survival. So do humans, of course, so what’s the difference? Why did she see a piranha shoal in her dream? Piranhas don’t even live in Florida. Why do untamed creatures always come to her on land and in the sea? Why her?
Filling her lungs with fresh salt air, she dove, swimming underwater farther and deeper than she remembers ever swimming before. Down and out she went, propelled like a fish by a twisting, gliding natural movement, a force beyond herself, animal energy turbulent and swift. Surfacing, she checked her watch. Twenty minutes have passed since she made her first dive underwater. That time couldn’t be right. Nobody can stay underwater that long.
Gulping air, Ruby wondered how far she swam. The shore seemed so far away. How could she swim so long and so far out without taking a breath? Maybe she was still dreaming. Maybe she drifted into a meditative trance, surfaced without remembering then dove deeper and deeper. Inhaling, she dove again.
When she surfaced four dolphins surfaced beside her.
Riding a slowly cresting wave to the beach, they balanced lightly on the tip of the surge, bobbing like sponges and peaking in a flash of blue-silver momentum. Four surfing female mammals ruling the dawn, queens of the blue brine, playing majestically as they glided to shore before turning abruptly and catching a swift current to swim underwater to make the turn again for another run through the wild surf. Ruby shared the energy of the four dolphins that now swam beside her. They left only when she swam back to shore with her smooth, strong, steady strokes.
Stepping from the comfort of nature’s sacred birthing pool Ruby Arenas put on the T-shirt and cheap rubber flip flops and stepped through the sand in a reawakening that felt like icy pin pricks, a resurrection that led to a quick walk back to her ramshackle cottage where she started a new day.
Class began at 10. Ruby had just enough time to shower, change and jump into the 1954 Plymouth Savoy her father, Carlos, bought her when she graduated high school. Painted mint green and pink, the car barely ran, a wreck he picked up for $1,000 and worked on the way he fixed vintage classic cars in Havana before he left for America. Ruby made the 25-mile drive east to the University of South Florida in Tampa, where she will finish her master’s program and contemplate applying to a Ph.D. program.
Both her father and her mother Verita died in a car crash earlier in the year when a drunken state senator slammed into them as they returned home from getting their favorite rum raisin ice cream at 4 p.m.
Dressed in new pineapple yellow flip flops, a gauzy red and purple Mexican skirt and a blue denim shirt with white fake pearl snap buttons and long sleeves rolled to the elbows, Ruby slid into her seat and threw open her notebook.
That’s when she saw the boy who killed the dolphin last year, chasing down and crashing into the gentle creature as he raced his monster Jet Ski in circles screaming with gleeful macho ignorance at his hunt. When Ruby saw his face she vowed to never forget. On the drive home from school that afternoon Ruby cursed the boy who sat across the room from her in class, the cruel human beast who didn’t recognize her from the day of his callous human victory.
That night she went to work at the Elbow Room bringing her favorite small shells in a worn leather pouch. RayRay allowed Ruby to tell fortunes from 9 to 11 on Friday nights, using her shells like Tarot cards the way her mother taught her to do when she was a girl. The tourists ate it up. Cockle shells, sand dollars, worm snail shells and spotted slipper shells are her favorites, all collected during early morning walks on the beach. Laying out a red velvet cloth, Ruby threw a handful of shells like dice at a gambling casino, enjoying the look of wonder customers wore after they chose the shells she used to read their personal future.
Ruby half-kiddingly called herself a witch, a good witch born of a fine mixture that blends the outlaw religion of Cuban Santeria and magic Mexican Santa Muerte, occult practices her mother shared with her from the time she was 10-years-old and learned to cast her first spell.
Ruby needed to know more but she already believed and opened herself to guidance from Our Lady of the Holy Death. The ultimate bodyguard, Santa Muerte is the personification of death, living, breathing and alive, a frightening hooded skeletal power of goodness, healing and protection, safeguarding and guaranteeing a path to the stellar afterlife for those she accepts into her embrace. Santeria, in all its mighty power, bows his fiery crown in deference to her glory.
When a seafood truck driver finished eating his honey-glazed salmon, Rudy Arenas beckoned him to her table. Ruby spoke softly to him, gently massaging his mind, hypnotizing him as he relaxed and dropped his head to his chest. Yes, she said, you will stop smoking. When she asked what he wanted for himself, his only request was to find the power to help him kick Kools and fat cigars. Ruby told him he will soon breathe easy, enjoying clean, fresh air with his grandchildren as he ages gracefully and enjoys a healthy life.
She told the trucker something else, too. Tomorrow, Ruby said, when you drive your truck at work you will see fish in the road. Pay them no mind and they will not hurt you. Creatures that swim are our friends, she said.
We all come from the water.
The next day, 20 minutes after happy hour ended at 7 at the Bulls Balls Tavern, the same smart-ass white boy from Ruby’s class was tooling south with a 2.14 blood alcohol content doing 85-miles-per-hour in a candy-apple red Chevrolet Silverado 1500. In front of him a refrigerated transporter truck hauling fresh crabs to seafood wholesalers in Clearwater Beach slammed on the brakes. The driver thought a reflection of the sun made him see a school of fish swimming in the center of the road.
The fish looked like piranhas.
He must have been so tired from driving extra hours he hallucinated.
Jesus Christ, of all things to imagine.
The drunken student from Ruby’s class who once killed a dolphin for the fun of it wasn’t paying attention when the sober veteran trucker almost stopped. When he did notice he overcompensated too quickly, swerving right, rolling the truck, flipping over the guide rail and plunging down the hill in a half dozen full rolls to the access road below before the pickup exploded in a tomato-shaped cloud of smoky fire.
In the distance where the Gulf of Mexico joins Tampa Bay, four dolphins moved to open water, leaping in unison as if celebrating and headed south toward Mexico. Following good vibrations like finely-tuned sonar, swimming with the thrust of torpedoes unleashed on an enemy craft, they dove and disappeared.